Vote for English ballots
April 16, 2007
by John Fonte
For more than 30 years, the federal government has required state and local governments to provide election ballots in a variety of foreign languages for American citizens with insufficient knowledge of English. Today -- as we debate "comprehensive" immigration reform -- let us end this policy of official multilingualism.
In other words, it is time to link "comprehensive immigration reform" with "comprehensive assimilation reform." Let us explain.
Immigration has been one of America's great success stories. At the core of that success is assimilation into the mainstream of American life. Central to assimilation is learning English because it is the language not only of economic opportunity, but also of our political culture, democratic self-government and history.
If we want new citizens to become full partners in our democracy, we should start with this question: How do we best encourage newcomers to become active citizens in American civic life? Patriotic assimilation is the key to sustainable immigration.
Almost all (including both supporters and opponents of foreign-language ballots) agree that learning English is essential to full participation in American constitutional democracy. Without a good knowledge of English, a citizen cannot actively participate in American politics in any but the most superficial way. His or her understanding of major debates, television news and arguments (both from and to) fellow Americans will be limited. Yes, there is (and always has been) a foreign language media, but does anyone really believe that this venue and this approach (linguistic isolation) is the best way to be involved in our constitutional democracy?
As America's Founders knew, the laws passed by Congress shape our conception of the common good and send messages to all citizens. If we all vote in English, the message is e pluribus unum: It says we are all in this together. This encourages the successful assimilation of immigrants; improves the life chances of fellow Americans and strengthens our democracy.
On the other hand, foreign language ballots send an entirely different message. They discourage rather than encourage the mastery of English; therefore, no matter how well meaning the intent, they harm the common good. Unfortunately, they also ensure that some remain isolated from the larger American political conversation.
We are in the middle of an intense national debate over immigration policy. At the heart of the immigration discussion is the question of assimilation: How well are we doing today?
During most of our history, assimilation worked rather well. Of course, there was no required foreign-language voting or any of the other trappings of government-sponsored ethnic and linguistic separatism during the heyday of Ellis Island. This was one of the reasons for the success of assimilation. A time, both the government and the private sector vigorously supported what was proudly called ''Americanization."
Foreign-language ballots were not part of the original Voting Rights Act of 1965, which aimed to address the historic wrongs that prevented African Americans from voting. Mandated foreign-language ballots were added 10 years later and were supposed to be temporary. Some worry that if foreign language ballots are eliminated, limited-English speakers will be completely disenfranchised. But this need not occur. Under law, a voter who has difficulty reading may bring an interpreter of his or her choice into the voting booth.
English is the language of successful assimilation and immigration, and we favor both. Foreign-language ballots weaken assimilation and divide Americans into linguistic enclaves. It is long past time to eliminate ''temporary'' foreign language ballots. If ''comprehensive immigration reform'' is serious, it will begin to address "comprehensive assimilation reform" as well.
John Fonte is a Senior Fellow and Director of Hudson's Center for American Common Culture.
Newt Gingrich, Former House Speaker is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and author of Winning the Future: A 21st Century Contract with America.